Obama Says He Is Sharpening Focus of War in Afghanistan

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 30, 2009

President Obama said yesterday that his predecessor's administration had lost its "focus" on the war in Afghanistan, forcing the creation of a new strategy that is aimed narrowly at defeating the terrorists who run their operations from there and Pakistan.

"What we want to do is refocus attention on al-Qaeda. We are going to root out their networks, their bases," he said on CBS's "Face the Nation" on the eve of his first overseas trip. He added: "We have to ensure that neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan can serve as a safe haven for al-Qaeda."

Obama said last week that he would boost the reinforcements heading to Afghanistan this summer to 21,000 troops, bringing total U.S. forces there to more than 60,000. At that level, he said yesterday, "we now have resourced properly this strategy. It's not going to be an open-ended commitment of infinite resources. We've just got to make sure that we are focused on achieving what we need to achieve with the resources we have."

Much as he did in announcing his strategy on Friday, Obama stuck to discussing a battle against al-Qaeda and said little about the Taliban, which controls much of southern Afghanistan, where much of the fighting is taking place. The president mentioned al-Qaeda eight times in the half-hour interview, while his one mention of the Taliban referred to its control of Afghanistan at the beginning of the decade.

Obama also reiterated his desire to have a permanent middle-class tax cut, pushing back against suggestions that he was willing to let the tax cuts enacted in the stimulus legislation expire after 2010.

"I'm going to be pushing as hard as I can to get it done in this budget . . . so we don't see a drop-off," he said. Asked whether he will insist that the tax cuts be made permanent, he said: "Absolutely. I still think it's the right thing to do."

And Obama elaborated on his conversation with the heads of the largest U.S. banks last week. He said he made it clear to them that they need to be more sensitive to the outrage felt by the American people.

"Show some restraint. Show some -- show that you get that this is a crisis and everybody has to make sacrifices," he said he told them.

"They agreed. And they recognized it. Now, the proof of the pudding's in the eating. So I expect to see that restraint operate," he added. "Now, the flip side is I have got to explain to the American people, we're not going to get this recovery if we don't see a recovery of the financial sector. And there's no separation between Main Street and Wall Street. We're all in this together."

Obama's interview was part of an administration blitz of the Sunday-morning airwaves, along with appearances by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Geithner said on ABC's "This Week" that the Troubled Assets Relief Program has $135 billion that has yet to be committed to struggling financial institutions. That leaves the government "substantial resources to move ahead with this broad-based suite of initiatives to help get the financial system back in the business of providing credit," Geithner said.

The Treasury secretary, who has been under fire during much of his tenure, waved aside questions about whether the administration will ask for even more money to bail out the financial sector.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, in terms of whether we need additional resources," Geithner said. "And, of course, if we come to that point, we'll go to the Congress and give them the strongest case possible and help them understand why this would be cheaper over the long run for us to move aggressively."

On "Fox News Sunday," Gates said he does not expect any change in the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gay men and lesbians serving in the military. And he said he does expect a rocket launch from North Korea sometime soon, although the United States is "not prepared to do anything about it" if the launch proceeds.

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